MY DARLING BILL IS DEAD

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i.

He died at the University Medical Center of Princeton on May 6, 2016.

ii.

It was sudden, and not sudden. Although this blog has candidly addressed my thoughts and feelings as I enter late life, there have been significant and purposeful omissions. The biggest is that from its inception two and a half years ago, Bill and I both knew he had a fatal disease for which there was no hope of cure.

For a long time it was a theoretical knowledge, obscuring our horizon but not imposing much practical restriction on daily life.  Back in 2005, when we had been together only four years and still lived in Massachusetts, he felt unwell and checked himself into the ER of Mass. General.  It turned out he had been overdosing with vitamin D, which is unwise (as he should have known, being an M.D. himself).  In the course of the complete workup that hospitals are wont to do when addressing a systemic complaint, a perceived crackle in the lungs led to a scan, which led to a hospital pulmonologist showing up at his bedside to announce bluntly that, by the way, he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and the average life expectancy for that disease was three years.

“Idiopathic” meant, in his case, no known cause.  Fibrotic scarring of the delicate lung tissue can be generated by continued exposure to and/or inhalation of strong irritants, after which it continues even where there is no further exposure. Bill had never worked in an environment polluted with noxious substances, never smoked, never lived in a heavily trafficked inner city.  He was a psychiatrist who sat in a chair in a comfortable and well ventilated suburban office for most of his working life and listened to unhappy people talk about their problems. “Why him?” is another of life’s unanswerable questions.

Moreover, the diagnosis was inadvertent.  If he had not gone to the hospital because of the excess Vitamin D, the fibrosis would not have been discovered until one or both of the two symptoms of this hopeless disease manifested themselves: continued coughing and/or shortness of breath.  Bill was symptom-free in 2005 and remained so for eight more years. That said, it’s not a diagnosis one can forget. He took a copy of the scan with us when we moved to Princeton and began a rigorous program of what he hoped would be proactive “alternative” treatment for lung issues.

These I will not describe, other than to remark that for the rest of our time together half our freezer and refrigerator were given over to expensive, time-dated and time-consuming antioxidant substances to inhale or swallow, and that one of our two linen closets contained enough supplements to open a store, plus boxes of bottled remedies to ward off any incipient cold that might develop from a sneeze or a sore throat, because even a cold could turn into a bronchitis or a pneumonia that his compromised lungs might not be able to handle.

iii.

The threat of death by suffocation was not all Bill confronted by the time he was 83 or 84. But although several of his other medical conditions were extremely painful, they were not fatal, and all but one tended to be cyclical, so there were periods of relief.  He was brave, patient, not particularly complaining, and appreciative of everything he felt life still had to offer.  However, these other ailments distracted me, so that I didn’t note with precision when the coughing began.  Looking back without notes, I place it in the fall of 2013 — two and a half years ago, which was when I began to blog.  (I don’t think there was a connection, but I must say that although he was never a demanding man, when doing all the chores around the house and tending to him began to consume much of my time, the blog was a great help to me; it could be written at home but also connected me to the world outside.)

The coughing was awful, and incessant, and utterly exhausting.  It sounded like a large dog barking non-stop.  If I had gone out to market or the drugstore, I could hear it coming from the front bedroom or living-room when I pulled into the driveway.  One or two of the neighbors inquired.  Not wanting to explain about the fibrosis, he said he was having a bad bronchitis.  Perhaps he thought that was true.  Somewhere he had picked up the idea that if the coughing was productive, as his was (meaning it produced phlegm), it was not a fibrosis symptom.  If so, he had been misinformed.  Even if productive, that kind of coughing is a sign of fibrosis.  In any event, he found a medication, Gabapentin, which suppressed the cough (although not the cause) and another year went by.  He could still climb the stairs in the condo without getting out of breath, and if he seemed to tire on short walks more quickly than before, that could be attributed to age. The last time we strolled the paths in Marquand Park together, in May 2014 (a visit memorialized in this blog with many photos of the trees he loved), he needed to rest on a bench halfway along.

iv.

At the end of 2014, the stairs became more difficult for him and we began the search for a pulmonologist to work with.  We did not revisit a second time the full-of-himself head honcho at Columbia Presbyterian in New York who had replied to Bill’s initial question, “How long do I have?” with a shrug and the curt, “Pick a number.”

In Princeton, the kindly fellow who ran the pulmonary rehabilitation lab at the University Medical Center where Bill would die a year and a half later told him he was off the bell curve for death from pulmonary fibrosis because he was still alive nine and a half years after diagnosis. That was cheering but also wrong. As we were told by the third pulmonologist, who took over when the kindly fellow retired, the clock begins to run from manifestation of symptoms, which is usually when the disease is diagnosed, and not from the time of an inadvertent diagnosis made when there were not yet symptoms.

Oxygen entered our house.  Medicare paid for a large concentrator with a fifty-foot cannula attached. (Easy to trip over.)  It stood at the foot of the stairs, so the cannula would reach Bill’s side of the bed in the master bedroom.  He didn’t need it for a while. He did need the seven-pound portable rechargeable oxygen concentrator that could be carried, with effort, in a shoulder bag or a backpack whenever he left the house or did anything requiring exertion. It had to be recharged every two hours or so, which meant we couldn’t stay out very long.  By now, I was doing all the driving anyway.

There was also Esbriet, an obscenely costly prescription medication the FDA had just approved; in Europe it had been shown to delay the development of the fibrosis somewhat if taken at maximum dose.  Bill was never able to achieve the maximum dose.  Even a two-thirds dose closed his esophagus so he couldn’t swallow, made him round-the-clock nauseous, and removed all his appetite, so that he lost significant weight — for him, always trim-to-slender, not a good thing. The third pulmonologist thought his problems with it might be age-related; younger patients seemed to tolerate it better. He recommended stopping it entirely or else trying an alternative and equally costly new drug, Ofev, that similarly slowed fibrosis development but had a different, although equally undesirable, side effect: constant and urgent diarrhea. Bill rejected the alternative without trial.

v.

At the beginning of 2016, a fourth pulmonologist arrived at the University Medical Center. She seemed empathetic and had a father with emphysema and his own oxygen concentrator at the foot of the stairs.  That may not have been the best of reasons to switch, but Bill wanted to feel comfortable with his doctor, which was probably as important as anything at this point. She put him on oxygen 24/7, which meant he began using the fifty-foot cannula day and night. Essentially, he was trapped in the house. It also rubbed sores on the tops of his ears. We had to put moleskin rectangles there.

The pulmonologist at Mass. General who had said the average life expectancy was three years did not offer detailed statistics.  50% of pulmonary fibrosis patients live five years from onset of symptoms; the other 50% don’t.  Since the coughing had not begun till the fall of 2013, I calculated that with some luck we might have another two or two and a half years together. Bill, tethered to his tubular lifeline, wanted to believe me but I think now probably realized it was not likely to happen.  He read books about the meaning of life, listened to Baroque music, watched nature videos, and slept more. We also held hands much of the time, even as we fell asleep.  I felt he was drifting into some space in his mind where I couldn’t follow, seeking to make peace with death.  Someone commented on this blog that the few and sporadic pieces I managed to post in 2016  were very dark.  Of course they were: It was just too hard to be lighthearted, even in a virtual world that wasn’t our real one.

vi.

Bill turned 88 on January 27.  After he died, I found in the recent Google history of his iPad the question, “What percent of people live to 88?”  Was he trying to comfort himself?  April 13 was our fifteenth anniversary but it was raining, so we postponed celebration.  A few days later, he made the effort to shower, shave and dress nicely; we went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant. (He loved pasta to the end.)  I let him out at the door with his portable oxygen, parked, and walked back to join him.  Although neither of us knew it, it would be our last outing together.

Near the end of April, I came down with the worst flu I had had in forty years (despite our both having had the recommended flu and pneumonia shots the prior fall).  For four days, I could hardly get up in the morning.   Of course, he caught it from me.  Just as I was beginning to recover, he sank fast. He fell out of bed the following afternoon, so weak I couldn’t help him off the floor.  I had to call a neighbor and her teenage son; the three of us managed to hoist him onto the mattress. That night it happened again, at one in the morning.  This time I called the police. They sent an ambulance and the EMTs, as well as a young police officer.  The head EMT wanted to take him to the hospital, but Bill refused and signed a paper to that effect.  However, the following day, his fourth pulmonologist insisted I bring him in.  He had to rest several times between the door and the car. When we reached the hospital, I brought a wheelchair out and helped him and his portable oxygen into it, parked, and came back for him.  I had never pushed him in a wheelchair before and was picturing in my mind that I might be doing that from now on.  I still thought there would be a “now on.”

vii.

He arrived on a Friday. He died the following Friday.  A nasal swab indicated that what we both had had was a viral flu, which in his case had turned into viral pneumonia with a probable overlay of bacterial pneumonia.  For three days, while he remained relatively upbeat, they pumped him full of steroids, antibiotics, anti-viral medication and much more oxygen than the home concentrator could generate, but were unable to reverse the infection in his lungs. They then suggested a bi-pap mask, which would prevent him from eating.  They also explained that they couldn’t leave him on it long,  and the next step would be intubation (breathing on a respirator) followed, if that didn’t work, by a tracheotomy.  Bill adamantly rejected the idea of tracheotomy; he refused to live connected to tubes and machines.

At first he decided against intubation as well, knowing that if it didn’t assist him in beginning to breathe on his own, he would never come off it, meaning when they removed the tubes, he would die.  But then on Tuesday, he changed his mind. One of the hospital pulmonologists was encouraging intubation because with the extra time it could provide, the medication might eliminate the infection and he would have another two or three months of life. Eventually, he agreed.  “Let’s give it a shot,” he said.

viii.

I spent Tuesday night at the hospital.  We both knew it might be our last night together, because intubation involves so much morphine that he would be unconscious from then on.  But we had time to tell each other most of what we wanted to say.  When I couldn’t quite understand him through the bi-pap mask, he wrote in a little notebook I still have in my bag. I did most of the crying. He said he wasn’t afraid to die anymore, that slipping away under morphine was not a bad way to go, and that he was only sorry he was leaving me.  He also said many other things I shall treasure all my life, but they are not to share.

By Friday morning, it was clear that intubation was an exercise in futility; it was not helping him breathe on his own. The doctors asked if I wanted to continue. I called Bill’s son in California, with whom I had been in daily contact. He agreed we should let him go. I had asked the attending that day how long Bill might live when removed from the respirator.  He said a few hours, or even a day. They removed the tubes at 2:35 in the afternoon.  He was pronounced dead at 2:52.  I sat by his side, and held his hand, and watched the blood drain from his face.  Although the hand remained warm for a while, his face turned yellow.  Whatever was lying in the bed wasn’t Bill any more.  Bill was gone.

SCARY

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Although most of us nearing old old age don’t often talk about it, even to each other, it’s a time of life that necessarily brings thoughts of what could come next.  As prepared as we may feel ourselves to be, both emotionally and practically — such thoughts begin to impinge more and more frequently on our consciousness because of what we see happening to our contemporaries.

“I just never thought this would happen,” exclaims a woman I know.  She is two years older than I am, with a husband nearing ninety, and two sons in their fifties not living in Princeton or anywhere near it who have children of their own still to educate.  Both she and her husband had been professionals throughout their working lives and seemed to me somewhat better fixed than Bill and I are.  When I met her about five years ago in a reading group, they were living in a free standing, well furnished house with three bedrooms, a study and a finished basement, as well as the requisite living and dining rooms and three full bathrooms.  The house had an attached two-car garage for their two cars and was beautifully landscaped by the condo association to which they belonged.

But she was already losing her vision to macular degeneration that didn’t respond to drops. Soon after we met, she became legally blind and could no longer drive.  They struggled on for about a year with the husband driving wherever they needed to go. Eventually, however, they had to move to a retirement community that provides transportation to doctors, hospitals, supermarkets, shopping centers and, on notice, elsewhere in town.  This was a huge downsizing — to a one bedroom apartment with den.

However, she adjusted.  The other residents were educated, many of them formerly affiliated with Princeton University, and there were activities within the main building to get her out of their small apartment and keep her occupied with lectures, movies (which she could still more or less see), and a small gym with physical trainer. As for reading, first she read with a magnifying glass, and then only books she could obtain on Kindle, where you can increase the type size to 16 or 18.  (It slowed down the reading, but she was determined.) Finally she needed a machine under which you slid the Kindle or iPad to magnify it still further.  She could no longer see well enough to review bills or write checks.  It became hard to communicate with her by email.

A year later, his emphysema took a turn for the worse and he was put on oxygen.  They gave up the remaining car to a grown granddaughter.  He was willing to use the oxygen at night when he slept, but not the portable one to move about the main building — which made it more and more difficult for him to reach the dining room.  He had to stop to catch his breath and rest on benches strategically placed along the corridors, sometimes falling asleep while he sat there.

One Sunday afternoon, when out to lunch with one of their sons, who was visiting, the wife tripped getting out of the car. She had a heart attack and a stroke which left her mind intact but resulted in a useless left arm and leg.  They took her to Philadelphia for cardiac surgery; she then went to a rehabilitation clinic where with hard work, she has managed to recover sufficient use of the left leg to walk slowly (although not too far) and to hang light bags on her left arm but not do much else with it.

She’s now back in their retirement community apartment.  Because of her incapacities, she has to have home help from 9 to 3 every day. It costs $25 an hour, or about $4,500 a month over and above all their other living expenses. After an initial period when it was covered, this cost has been coming out of pocket. Three months ago, her husband’s doctor put him under hospice care.  This means it was then thought he would not survive more than another six months.  Hospice pays for two hours a day of home care (as well as a visit every few days by a registered nurse).  However, his doctor believes he needs round-the-clock assistance, because he keeps trying to get up to reach the commode every other hour of the night and falls. His wife, obviously, can provide no physical help at all.  This means another sixteen hours of home care per day at $25 an hour.

She telephoned me in despair last week.  Money has been flying away at a frightening rate.  She’s had to authorize their broker to liquidate funds they never thought they’d need to touch for such a circumstance — including roll-over IRA funds that are taxed after being distributed (so you have to take out more than you need to keep the amount you want after paying taxes on the whole of the withdrawal).

And the scary part is that her husband is doing well!

“What does that mean?” I asked.  “He’s getting better?”

“No,” she said.  “But he’s stable.  His vital signs are strong.  He eats. His brain seems clear when he’s awake.  Three months of the six are gone, and he’s not any sicker.”

She means he’s probably not going to die in the predicted three months.  The round-the-clock care may go on, and on. She is looking into the possibility of saving some money by replacing the current system of hourly home care with a live-in person; it may be slightly cheaper, but not much. (Moreover, it might not work if he keeps waking so often at night; a single live-in person would get no sleep.) Bottom line: the longer he lives, the more his home care depletes their savings, and the less is left for her own survival afterwards.

Who ever thinks the time will come when you might have to worry someone with whom you’ve lived for sixty-four years won’t die before you run out of money?

 

 

 

 

 

 

WRITING SHORT: 29/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I belong to the talk therapy generation – when you could disgorge a Portnoy-length complaint about you you you to a willing, patient, selfless listener for as many fifty-minute segments as needed. I’m not just talking Freudian psychotherapy here. Whatever the therapist’s orientation, he was always there for you – on time, attentive, with no needs of his own, except to be paid.

Yes, it was expensive. You had to work for it. (If only your parents wrote the checks, it might go on forever.) But many therapists had a sliding scale. And if you found the right one, opening up about your troubles to such a knowledgeable, caring listener could change your life, and sometimes actually save it.

After two false starts, I talked my way through twenty-four non-consecutive years of trouble – eight years for three “hours” a week with one man, who may have kept me from going crazy, and later once a week for sixteen more years with another. They were both older and wiser than I was. I paid for all of it with my own earned money and used to say, jokingly, that I couldn’t leave a husband till I had a shrink, and couldn’t leave a shrink till I had a husband. It wasn’t entirely a joke.

Now that insurance companies demand quicker (cheaper) results, psychiatrists mostly medicate; psychologists and social workers, who’ve taken over the talking trade, tend towards the quick fix and goodbye. There may still be some few psychiatrists who believe in talking it out, but it’s highly unlikely they take insurance or Medicare, which has made real talk therapy, if you can find it, a luxury.

I do wish I could ensure Bill and I live on and on together, but the prospect of one of us dying before the other is hard to disregard, and I sometimes ask myself: To whom will I then turn? Have I outlived all the talk therapists still in practice? If not, how long can I afford to keep talking? Being a crotchety aging person, I don’t  much trust the guidance of younger “professionals” reimbursed for rapid turnover as I enter the uncharted emotional wilderness of old old age. That must be the ultimate hard place, where you must stand all alone till the end.

WRITING SHORT: 4/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

As long as I’ve known him, Bill has enjoyed televised nature programs. Me not so much. They’re almost always about strange birds in equatorial countries, animals struggling to reproduce and survive among predators, inhospitable areas of earth where indigenous men take prodigious risks to feed their families. So we used to trade off: a program for him, a program with more narrative thrust for me. This worked well because we both enjoy holding hands while watching, which usually trumped choice of what to watch.

Now as I grow older, Bill’s programs have become more difficult for me. I’m aware of what’s almost certainly coming. If it’s about northern wolves, a large starving bear will seize a wolf cub when its mother leaves to seek food. The cub is just a fluffy puppy really, tumbling about happily in his snowy new world. Why must he be mortally pierced  by those fierce fangs? Sometimes they also show you the blood on the snow, a shot of the bereft mother. “How can you stand it?” I demand. “I don’t look,” says Bill. “But that’s  life.  And the photography’s wonderful.”

Last night a sea lion on an iceberg in Antartica was hunted by a school of killer whales. The whales used teamwork to break up the iceberg till the sea lion was clinging to a scrap of ice. Then one whale caught his tail in its jaws. The camera focused directly on the face of the doomed sea lion being pulled backwards into the icy waters to what it must have known was its own sure death. From now on, Bill will have to admire his wonderful nature photography alone.

I know that’s life. I also know whose death it really is the thought of which I cannot bear.

BECOMING NOBODY’S CHILD

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[One by one, your parents die. Then there’s no more mother or dad standing between you and whatever it is that lies ahead for us all. You’re next.

Unless you’re a person of great and abiding faith in a hereafter (which I am not), the feeling of loss following the death of the second parent is therefore accompanied by another realization: there’s no more buffer zone.

Of course, that’s irrational.  There’s never a buffer zone.  Some people die while their own parents are still alive, ripped away forever in the vibrancy of their youth.  And in other cases, there remains for a while the possibly false comfort of surviving aunts or uncles, keeping you from immediately confronting the harshness of acknowledging it’s your turn now.

But your parents are where you come from. They’re your first knowledge of and connection with the world. Once they’re both gone, it’s never the same again.

I was an only child. I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother after I reached adolescence.  (A euphemism.) But I was necessarily the one they called in Massachusetts when she died in California towards the end of November 1993.  She had colon cancer. However, her doctors had thought she might have another three years or so — even without surgery, which she had firmly refused. The call was therefore unexpected. I confirmed by telephone that she was to be cremated, as my father had decided for both of them. Then I took a five day leave of absence to fly three thousand miles, settle her affairs and bring back the ashes.

I could have left them. The state of California would have disposed of them, either over the ocean, as she had decided my father’s ashes should be dispersed, or over a deserted piece of land in the middle of nowhere between Sacramento and Nevada which had been designated for such purposes.  But whatever she was thinking when she authorized the scattering of the remains of my father, I wouldn’t do that to her.

As it turned out, it took about eighteen months before I was able to sort out my own affairs, which were then in flux, and also come to terms with the realization that my mother and I would now never make peace with each other, and that it was time to say a final goodbye, even though that meant I’d be next in line. 

Perhaps I was lucky never to have had to attend a funeral, other than my mother-in-law’s (which I had had no hand in planning).  So here I had to invent my way. However, we all do what we have to do — as I did, in the spring twenty years ago.

Now we’re in the spring again.  If I were still living in Massachusetts, I would be visiting the cemetery instead of sending commemorative flowers. However, I can also re-run the piece about burying her that I posted on November 20, 2013, very early in the life of this blog. Truth to tell, it’s starting to feel rather like ancient history to me.  But I suppose that happens to us all: eventually we do get used to being nobody’s child. Sort of.]

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BURYING MY MOTHER

My mother died, after seven years of widowhood, of colon cancer. I’m not sure she knew what she had. She was 89 and living in an assisted living community in Palm Springs, California to which I had moved her. She refused to be moved to a similar facility in Boston, where she would be near me and I could see her more often. “What would I do there?” she said.

I was her only child.

My phone rang at 2 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1993. I had been to Palm Springs for three days only a few weeks before, and had made arrangements to visit with her again for Christmas. But she couldn’t wait. She refused to eat. I think she wanted to die.

The large corporate firm where I was then practicing law permitted five days of leave “for the death of a parent, spouse or child.” I flew out the next day to settle accounts, dispose of her furniture, and collect the ashes. Many years before, my father had directed that they both be cremated. The crematorium gave me her wedding ring and a small, clear plastic bag of ashes in a plastic box — all that remained of her. I brought the box home and put it in a bureau drawer for the time being, while I sorted out my life (then somewhat in flux) and tried to sort out my feelings.

When I was a child, she was the center of the universe.

Then I grew up. She didn’t like my posture, my glasses, my clothes. I chose bad earners for husbands, lived in “ugly” houses, had disappointing children. I didn’t call often enough. I didn’t write often enough. And what did I want to be a lawyer for? Although she never actually said it, she didn’t like me.

She was the great failed love affair of my life. What was I going to do with her now she was gone? Keep her forever in my drawer so she would always, at last, be mine?

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A year later I had moved across the river to Cambridge. As a resident, I could have bought a plot in the crowded Cambridge municipal cemetery for $50. Except I couldn’t. Not with Mount Auburn Cemetery (much more expensive) across the street from my bedroom window — historic, beautiful, landscaped: a place to walk, reflect, and bury your dead in style.

My friend Gayle drove in from Worcester to help me choose. It was January 1995, and bitter cold. We clomped up and down the icy paths, looking at the available spaces for ashes marked on a map from the Director of Sales. Several of them were near Azalea Pond, lovely even in winter — bordered by weeping willows and encircled by a low stone wall.

I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. “You’re putting me here, where cars can park on me?”

We walked closer to the pond, inside the stone enclosure. “Next to a woman with a husband? When I have no husband?”

We were freezing. Enough with the looking. I bought a place for her inscription on a pedestal facing the pond, with its own willow nearby. No cars. Higher than all the other inscriptions facing the pond. And a double (at double the price), with room for my father’s name above hers. No one would ever pity my mother as a woman without a husband!

The carpenter who was altering the closets in my new apartment made two small mitered pine boxes, without nails. He refused to take money. It was an honor, he said. My father’s ashes had been scattered over the Pacific, so I had nothing of him to put in his box. Instead, four photographs: as a boy, a young groom, the father of my girlhood, a retiree under the California sun.

I ordered flowers. I flew both sons to Boston for the ceremony. They were young, and without plane fare. Without strong ties to my mother, either. But they were all the extended family she had. And I wanted them to see how it was done. So they would be ready for the next time.

Gayle insisted on coming too. There would be four of us.

One problem, though. What should I say? What good things could I say?

It took until the night before. And then I had it. At midnight, I wrote it out to read at the grave site, so I should get it right.

The day was clear and sunny. One son carried the box with my father’s pictures. The other son carried the other one, my mother’s box. Before we closed it, I wet a finger and smoothed the ashes inside. I couldn’t help it. One last caress. Then I licked my finger clean.

Each son placed a box in the opening in the earth which had been dug for us. The grounds-keeper threw fresh earth into the hole.

This is what I said at the grave of my mother on May 20, 1995. Maybe it made her happy at last.

We have come here today, to this beautiful place, to honor Michael Raginsky, who was my father, and Myra Raginsky, who was my mother. “Honor” was not a word in their vocabulary. “Respect for parents” would have been more like it. But meaning no disrespect, “honor” is the right word.

Remembering my parents as they were in their later years, and certainly as my two children may remember them, they seemed to live timid, critical, constricted lives — without even the modicum of daily happiness to which everyone is entitled. And yet, once — before any of us knew them — these two people whom we recall as so modest and somewhat fearful, did something so absolutely extraordinary that it still amazes me every time I think of it.

At the ages of seventeen and nineteen — when they were still by our standards barely out of adolescence, Mirra Weinstein and Mendel Raginsky, as they were then known — not yet married to each other, or even thinking of it — said goodbye forever to parents, her brother, his sisters, friends, the world as they knew it, and voyaged to a place literally halfway around the globe where they did not know anyone at all, did not know the way things worked, did not even know how to speak — to anyone except each other and other Russians.

I don’t know if they ever realized afterwards what a remarkable feat of courage that was. I don’t know if they ever were sorry, wished they could go back. They didn’t talk about things like that. I do know they Americanized their names, learned English, married, became citizens, made a life, and raised a child. Their ways were not always the ways I might have wished they had. But I would not be here if it were not for that remarkable voyage into the unknown on which they embarked in 1922, and neither would my children. And that is why “honor” is the right word.

If there is a somewhere after here, Mother and Dad, I hope you are pleased that your journey has ended at this tranquil and lovely place of trees and pond. Despite all my carryings on, I always loved you, and I always will.”

Then we arranged our flowers on the fresh raw earth, placed four small stones on top of the pedestal, and went away to the Charles Hotel to have a champagne lunch.

BLOGGING THROUGH THE MINEFIELDS

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I once mentioned in a reply to someone’s posted comment that cheery though this blog usually appears to be in its attention to “the good things in life,” a dark undercurrent runs below each piece — silently for the most part, but occasionally surfacing.

Thoughts of death and dying.

It’s all very well to try practicing living “in the now” when you’re getting old. I may even be luckier than most in that I have a constitutional inability to multi-task or multi-think.  A former boss charged with giving me the dreaded annual review at the Big Law Firm where in days gone by I used to labor remarked of my work that every single piece of it was excellent, but I seemed unable to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. (A grave flaw in legal practice, where adroitly juggling open cases is a must.)  She used the analogy of beads on a string; I focused only on the bead in front of me and was oblivious to the beads lined up behind it.

However, life makes such oblivion to what’s coming down the pike harder to maintain with any consistency as one ages. The earliest big loss for most of us is the death of our parents. Clementine Churchill said (or wrote) it first:  It’s very hard to realize one is nobody’s child.  When that happens, the loss is not the only pain.  There’s also the frightening recognition no one is still ahead of us.  We’re next.

Then it begins to happen.  Holes appear in our sense of the world.  I still can’t contemplate one of those iPhone-illustrated trips to New York that you periodically read about here without first thinking I must let Cathy know I’m coming.  Maybe we can get together to do something beforehand.  But I can’t let Cathy know. Although she lived in New York all her life (even went to Barnard College), and we never lost touch since meeting in 1960, she doesn’t live there anymore. She doesn’t live anywhere. Cancer took her away two years ago, after a rotten four years of surgery, sickness and pain, despite her being six years younger than I am.  I still have a red linen summer dress in my closet bought on one of our joint shopping expeditions in New York because she urged me to get it. Every time I see the dress on its hanger, I think of her.  And I can’t get rid of the dress, because the dress is the last I have of her.

Another hole in my universe — an even bigger one — also opened the year Cathy died, although I didn’t learn of it until last year.  That one I did write about (in “Why There’s No Post Today,”) because I couldn’t not.  Sometimes I still wonder how he’s doing and what he’s doing — until I remember he’s not doing anything anymore because he’s just ashes scattered somewhere. (And I don’t even know where.)

No one within twenty years of my age whom I’ve met since moving to Princeton is untouched.  One lost a husband (also a lawyer), just turned seventy, to pancreatic cancer.  Another is married to a brilliant man in his seventies severely debilitated by Parkinson’s.  A woman two years older than I (an architectural historian) is legally blind and rapidly losing what vision is left to macular degeneration that no longer responds to treatment; it’s harder and harder for her to read anything, even on Kindle at its most enlarged. A year ago she had a stroke and a heart attack. She survived both, underwent cardiac surgery and prolonged physical therapy, and can now very slowly maneuver her way around the facility to which she and her husband (with pulmonary problems) have moved, but needs an aide or a friend to accompany her.  Since she can still make out enough of movies to enjoy them, I have occasionally been picking her up and taking her out to lunch, then to a movie of her choice, and then back to the facility where she now lives. However, except for her two adult sons (one of whom drives from Boston and back to see her and the other from New York), I don’t think any of her former acquaintances come.  People are embarrassed or scared when the Grim Reaper seems to be hovering near.

Yesterday, Bill ( aged 87 1/2) called his closest friend, who still lives in Cambridge (Massachusetts), to say hello.  Being men, they don’t touch base as often as women might do, but the feeling runs deep. They’ve known each other a long time. The friend — also a retired psychiatrist — will soon be 91.  He is long divorced but has a daughter and two grandchildren a couple of towns away.  A year ago he sounded hale and relatively hearty, although I believe he could no longer drive. In February, when they last spoke, he had had a heart attack, described as “relatively minor.”  However, since then he has become extremely weak.  Two weeks ago he fell and broke an elbow.  He can no longer walk at all.  He uses a commode. He has round-the-clock care, from aides he describes as just so-so. He sounds (Bill says) very frail.  He is waiting to die.  I thought of perhaps trying to drive up there this summer (Bill and I spelling each other at the wheel) so that they could see each other one more time, but his daughter says he’s in hospice care and might not live that long. She hopes the end comes swiftly to save him more pain and unhappiness.  Understandably, Bill is unhappy, too.  He says it’s not only about his friend.  It’s about himself as well.  I never really knew Bill’s friend, except to say hello to, but what makes Bill unhappy comes round full circle to me, as I still share a bed with him, thank God.

We will both get past it.  For now.  But in the interests of fuller disclosure — although, chatty though I may seem, there are still many things I do not “share” — I thought those of you who aren’t really here yet (whatever you may think of those first few wrinkles and sags you spy in the mirror) should probably know that “getting old” isn’t always the picnic reflected in this blog — despite the nature photos, trips to New York, flattering selfies and two cute kitties.

However, there are still distractions. For instance: the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning are tied 2-2 in Round Three of the NHL Eastern Conference, and Game 5’s tonight.  My gut feeling is that the Rangers will win, but I welcome surprises.  Didn’t guess I knew anything about pro hockey, did you?  Well, I don’t really.  But I am interested in the outcome because I’m connected by blood to the guy who screams “S-c-o-r-e!” for Tampa.  So I’m hoping he gets to scream “S-c-o-r-e!” often tonight.

See?  I’m cheering up just thinking that might happen!

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YOU? A HOCKEY FAN? GIMME A BREAK!

REMEMBERING DECEMBER 7, 1941

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[Americans as old as I am, or older, will all have some personal memory of where they were and what they were doing 73 years ago today. The rest of you may wonder how anyone could remember that far back.

We remember because of the sudden and unforeseen events occurring on that day; they triggered our country’s unprepared entry into World War II — and thereby changed all our lives in so many ways it would be hard to forget them, even if we were still just children playing in the backyard that Sunday afternoon.

Those of you who’ve been following TGOB since last year may recall I first ran this piece on December 7, 2013. If so, think of it as commemorative. I’ll probably continue running it, or something like it, every December 7, as long as I can.]

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HITLER’S LAMPSHADES

It was a day that would live in infamy, the President said.

But I was only ten and a half and didn’t know what infamy was. When the news broke that Sunday, interrupting the regular afternoon radio programs, I was playing behind the garages with Richard Mancini and my best friend Barbara.

Barbara was in my sixth-grade class at Franklin Avenue School and lived just one house away from me. In between was a small wooded lot where a ramshackle one-story structure with a porch leaned sideways on a small patch of clearing in the trees and brush. It belonged to an elderly Japanese couple. You could tell they were Japanese because they were shorter than other grownups and had slanty eyes. But you almost never saw them except when the woman came out the front to sweep the porch or the man came out the back with garbage.

My father had brought us to Hollywood a year and a half before because he had lost his job playing cello in New York and thought he could find work as a studio musician. He hadn’t had much luck. “It’s all connections,” he told my mother. She then told me she might have to become a live-in maid in some rich family’s house if he didn’t find work soon. I would have to share a room with her. I didn’t want to share a room with my mother or go to another school.

I certainly didn’t want to be the maid’s little girl in anybody else’s house, and be meek and humble, and never get to play with Barbara or Richard again. Other kids’ fathers had jobs, I thought. Why did mine have to be different? My mother sighed and put her arm around me. “We’ll see what happens,” she said.

The boxy little bungalow my father had rented for $30 a month was one of a set of four — two in front and two in back — on Los Feliz Boulevard. Ours was in front, with the living room and kitchen facing the street and two small bedrooms and a bathroom facing the bungalow behind it. All the way in the rear was a courtyard with two garages on each side; behind each pair of garages was a wooden platform, angled out over a valley. The platform on our side held an incinerator, a long bench, several clotheslines and a double railing to keep you from falling into the abyss.

Mr. Mancini, the landlord, lived and worked somewhere else but often came to do maintenance at the bungalows on weekends. When he did, he brought his son Richard with him. Richard was twelve, tall and thin, with straight dark hair that fell into his eyes. I liked him very much and had a feeling that he liked me too.

What I usually played with Barbara when Richard wasn’t there was a make-believe story called “Mother and Baby” which featured my Dydee Doll. Almost every little girl had at least one Dydee in those days. It came with a toy baby bottle you could fill with water. Dydee’s mouth had a hole where the water went in when you squeezed the bottle and its belly button had another hole which squirted the water out when you squeezed Dydee’s tummy. The pink flat area between Dydee’s legs had no opening, so it wasn’t exactly like a real baby. But you could pretend.

What Richard always wanted to play with us was “Doctor Delivering Baby.” Barbara and I took turns being Nurse and Patient. Richard was always Doctor, the one who reached up Patient’s dress and pulled Dydee out from between her legs. After helping Patient to lie down, Nurse mainly just watched.

I was very excited by this game, especially when I was Patient. I loved lying down on the bench beside the incinerator, under the clotheslines, pushing the doll up between my legs, tucking it snugly against my panties, and then carefully arranging the skirt of my dress to cover my knees. I sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be more realistic to take off my panties before lying down, because how could a baby be born through a pair of underpants? But I thought Richard might be shocked at this, so didn’t mention it.

Doctor would pretend to wash his hands, Nurse would pretend to help him slip on his rubber gloves, they would both turn to me, and I could hardly breathe waiting for Doctor to reach up under my dress, grope for the doll and work it down between my legs, the backs of his hands sliding very slowly against the skin of my bare thighs, until it was “born.” He would then wish me much happiness with my new baby and present it to me proudly, to clasp against my flat chest.

So that’s what we were doing the first Sunday afternoon in December 1941. When Richard had finished his Doctor speech, I pulled myself up from the bench and handed the doll over to Barbara. Then I realized I just had to pee. “Wait till I get back,” I called, running to our bungalow.

My mother and father were both in the living room as I flew past them to the toilet; they were listening to the big Stromberg Carlson radio that stood against one wall. When I came out, my mother said, “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. It’s probably war.”

“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” I asked. “Is it in America?”

“I’m not sure,” my mother said. “I don’t think so.”

But my father just said, “Ssssh.” I shrugged and ran back out to Richard and Barbara. The word “pearl” made me think of rings.

“We’ve been bombed,” I said importantly. “It may be war.”

Barbara looked up from the bench at the sky. “Bombed where?” she asked. “I don’t see anything.”

Richard had a somewhat better grasp of world events. “War with who?” he asked. “Hitler?”

“Japan, I think.”

“That’s crazy,” he said. “Japan is America’s friend. My dad said so. They’ve even got people in Washington right now talking with Hull about trade or something.”

“Who’s Hull?” asked Barbara.

“Cordell Hull,” said Richard. “Just our Secretary of State, that’s who.”

This was beyond me. “Well, my mother said we were bombed by Japan,” I insisted.

“That doesn’t mean it’s so,” said Richard.

“My mother’s not a liar.”

“Didn’t say she was,” said Richard. “She must have heard wrong. I know for a fact we’re not at war with anyone.” He turned right away from me and towards Barbara on the bench. She still had Dydee under her dress. “As for you, dear lady,” he said in his Doctor voice, “aren’t you in terrible pain yet?” Barbara nodded vigorously and clutched her stomach. “Ow, ow!” she cried. “Help me, Doctor! Please!”

Richard pulled on his pretend rubber gloves without waiting for me to assist. “There, there,” he said to Barbara. “It’s going to be all right.” He waved me to his side. “Nurse! Let’s start getting this baby born right now.”

But after Barbara and Richard went home and I was back in the house, listening to the President telling the country that America was at war, and with Japan, I gave the situation serious thought. I already knew that Hitler hated Jews and that my parents and I were Jews, although I wasn’t sure what made us that.

We weren’t religious. And we didn’t do anything different than other kids’ families. But when we had first come out here and were looking for a place to live, I had seen signs posted in certain neighborhoods we drove through that said, “Jews not welcome here,” and my mother had said that meant us. I had also heard the grownups talking one time, when they didn’t know I was listening, about Hitler making lampshades out of Jewish skin. And then I had read headlines in the newspaper my father brought home every day that shouted in big letters: “Hitler warns U.S.: ‘You’re Next!’”

So I had been very glad we were in Hollywood instead of New York, even if my father was still out of work, because we were farther from Hitler and it would take him longer to reach me.

(Did they peel your skin off after you were dead, or before?)

Now with this news about Japan, I took out my geography book and studied a map of Asia and Alaska. They were really close together, almost touching in one place, and I saw that Japan could get to me that way, moving down through Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon to California.

On the other hand, I had never heard that Japan particularly hated Jews, so I supposed it wouldn’t be worse for me than for anyone else if they reached Hollywood. But the safest place to live seemed to be Kansas, because it was equally far from each coast. It would take both Japan and Germany a long time to get there.

Would I have the courage to run away to Kansas by myself if my parents stayed put? Probably not. There was still President Roosevelt, though. My mother said he had saved us from the Depression and from Jew-haters like Father Coughlin on the radio and Westbrook Pegler in the newspaper. Now that America was at war, could he save us again?

A week or so later, the Japanese couple next door disappeared. It seemed to happen overnight. Nobody saw them go. One day there, the next day — boom — gone. My mother said they had been taken to an unknown place to stay, together with other Japanese people. It was for their safety and for ours, she explained.

“Did they get to take their furniture with them?” I asked. The windows of their house were shuttered; you couldn’t look inside. My mother didn’t know. I thought it would be very sad if the old man and woman had to go away without any of their things. And who would take care of everything while they were gone?

“The place is locked,” said my mother. After that, people stopped talking about it, even though the house stayed vacant for as long as we lived next door.

My class at the Franklin Avenue School talked about the Japanese Front during Social Studies period, though. Wake Island, Corregidor, Bataan. The news from there was never good.

Then Richard’s parents decided to send him to parochial boarding school in another state. He came to say goodbye just before New Year’s. “When will you be back?” I asked. “Not for a long time,” he said. “Summer maybe.” His father was waiting in the car, so that was all there was to it. No special look, or promise to write or anything.

Maybe he hadn’t liked me as much as I liked him. Or maybe he had lost interest because I hadn’t known who Cordell Hull was.

Weekends felt empty without Richard to look forward to. For consolation my mother let me bring home a mixed-breed spaniel puppy from a litter in the garage of a lady down the block who was giving them away free. She said the puppy would be company for her when I was in school, so there were at least two reasons to have him.

Unfortunately, whenever he was let out to do his business the puppy went hunting for frogs on the property that used to belong to the Japanese couple. Then he would vomit parts of barely chewed-up raw frog all over the clean kitchen floor. My mother said if the Japanese family had been allowed to stay, they wouldn’t have let him do that. She didn’t call Japanese people “Japs,” the way everyone else was doing. “They weren’t hurting anybody,” she added. “They were nice quiet people.”

“I thought it was for their safety and ours,” I said.

“Well, that’s what they tell you,” said my mother darkly. “But who knows?”

I never had to become the maid’s little girl in someone else’s house and learn to be meek and humble. In July, my parents and I moved back to New York, where my father finally found a regular job. We left the puppy with Barbara, who promised to take good care of him. I wondered how Barbara’s mother would deal with the chewed-up bits of raw frog on her kitchen floor, but my mother said she had enough things on her mind without worrying about that.

My father rented a three-and-a-half room apartment in Kew Gardens for $45 a month, and I entered the seventh grade at P.S. 99 Queens in the fall. Here we followed the European Front during Social Studies period and pinned up little maps cut from The New York Times on a bulletin board. We also made round balls of tinfoil from the packages of cigarettes our parents smoked, because the government was short of tin. It was the class contribution to the War Effort, though no one at school explained the exact use to which these balls were going to be put.

However, my mother read in the paper that C rations were packed in cans made of tin. After that, whenever I sat in the kitchen carefully peeling a thin skin of tinfoil from its tobacco-scented paper backing I felt I was helping feed hungry soldiers.

I sent our new address to Richard’s father in California, but Richard didn’t write. Then I began going to Viola Wolff’s School of the Dance, above a Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard. There on Mondays after school I learned to foxtrot, waltz and rhumba with a boy named Robert Goldbaum whose family had escaped from Germany while they still could. (They were lucky, said my parents.)

Robert clearly liked me a lot, since he kept choosing me as his partner. Which meant it was safe to like him a lot too.

Although things still weren’t looking so good for America war-wise, Miss Oshman, my seventh-grade teacher, said she was confident that with the help of Our Boys, President Roosevelt would pull us through. My father was working again, I had met Robert, maybe Miss Oshman was right.

So although I was now three thousand miles closer to Hitler, I stopped thinking about lampshades.

© Nina R. Mishkin 2013